Every online search tells a story, weaving together a dynamic picture of why a search query was submitted.

Search engine intent is a metric that reveals what’s truly going on in search engine results pages (SERPs). And it’s exactly what marketers, advertisers and brand managers need to understand to fully grasp their online reach, their prospects’ queries and their future keyword targets.

What is search engine intent?

Search engine intent is how a search engine like Google, Bing or DuckDuckGo interprets the intent of a search query. Basically, the search engine has to deduce the primary reason behind why the person submitted the query.

The reason Google has become the world’s search engine of choice is because it is very good at providing people with the answers they’re looking for. Take, for example, something as seemingly straightforward as “Shoe Trends 2020.”

What exactly is this searcher getting at? How can Google deliver the best user experience on the first try — and in real time?

There are numerous potential reasons behind “Shoes Trends”:

  • A Gen Z blogger wanting to stay on top of the latest fashions.
  • A parent looking to quickly make a purchase.
  • A shoe designer doing some online competitor research.

Search engines (Google in particular) have become quite good at sniffing out what a searcher has in mind when they enter a keyword query.

Transactional vs Informational

vs Navigational Intent

When you drill down into “intent” proper, you can distinguish between the most common types:

  • Transactional intent: These searchers want to make a purchase. They “Click to Buy.”
  • Informational intent: These searchers want to gather information. They “Click to Learn.”
  • Navigational intent: These searchers want to navigate to a specific site or webpage. They “Click to Go.”

So, someone who searches for “running shoes” and clicks on an ecommerce site is further down the sales funnel and more inclined to make a purchase in the near future; they’re transactional.

Alternatively, someone who searches “number of countries in the world” is purely just looking for information, whether that’s from a featured snippet, Wikipedia or a high-authority domain. (According to the United Nations, the answer is 195 by the way.)

Lastly, someone who types “Content Marketing Institute” into Google is looking for one thing: to be directed to the Content Marketing Institute’s website. They know where they want to go but may not search for a full URL, instead using a search engine to navigate them to where they intend to be.

By understanding search engine intent, not only do you know how keywords are showing up in SERPs but also with which type of intent you can build content around. This especially applies to transactional (Click-to-Buy) and informational (Click-to-Learn) intent, as these are inherently more important to marketers and brand managers because they deliver qualified customers. 

People submitting non-branded (non-navigational) keywords that are marked as transactional or informational, are your clutch customer. They’re either ready to make a purchase (and haven’t decided what brand they’re going to buy) or they’re still collecting research. Some SEOs will call this “Commercial Investigation,” but at Visably we consider it the same as “Informational” (Click-to-Learn). 

Because navigational intent is often incredibly clear, there’s not much analysis required on your part. You can, for the most part, filter this out of your research, as navigational queries are heavily branded and these users may be repeat customers or those already familiar with your brand. All of this is good news, of course, but you don’t necessarily need to create new content or rework your SERP strategy for navigational searchers — not starting out, at least.

Keyword research using search engine intent.

Search engine intent qualifies SERPs. By this we mean that by uncovering the intent inherent in SERPs, brands can pinpoint their customers’ wants, needs and desires using Google to do the heavy lifting.  

This is an incredibly powerful realization that serves a range of purposes, in particular in the realm of keyword research.

Conventional keyword research begins with a general brainstorming session, proceeds to research within an SEO tool of your choice and then results in a lot of data exporting and spreadsheeting. Hopefully by the end of this process you’ve got a list of keywords that are relevant to your brand and its goals.

But not so fast.

These keyword lists are fine and you may get lucky matching up SEO content strategy with search intent. But why spend all that time and content investment without knowing the critical piece that is going to make a SERP flush with commerce-oriented results vs. informational blogs and reviews?

Even if marketers have intent in mind, they likely rely on a basic formula to decipher search engine intent: keyword descriptors + SERP features = intent.

for example: the descriptor “Cheap” added to “Running Shoes” — along with a cursory glance at the SERP — may suggest that the intent is transactional

It’s a start, but still not as precise as we need it to be. The number of SERP features that appear for any given keyword is limited to what Google decides to show you, which is usually just the top-ranking organic result (i.e. featured snippet / answer box). So, if you’re just going to peek at a featured snippet and deduce search intent solely from that quick glance, you’re skipping out on a better process.

You need a more comprehensive and less time-intensive workflow that automates SERP analysis beyond just SERP features and keywords. To more accurately ascertain search engine intent, look at every result on the SERP — not just the featured snippets.

With a 360-degree view of the SERP in its entirety, intent really comes to life. What is each listing saying? What stories are hidden in these results? 

More importantly, how can you target the keyword intent for your gain?

How to think of search engine intent as a metric

Remember, keyword strategy is only half-baked if it’s not:

  • Intent-driven.
  • Lucrative to your brand.
  • Feasible to win page-1 visibility.

This is not to say that traditional keyword metrics are garbage; it’s all critical information that plays into how you form search strategy. The fact is, as Google evolves its algorithms, digital marketing tools need to keep up. 

So what you really need aren’t keyword lists per se, but additional keyword-scoring and qualification mechanisms. You need to know priority keyword targets, audience personas, channel segments and more. Oh, and this is, of course, on top of some of your mainstream metrics like keyword difficulty and search volume. 

Even further, cost-per-click, competition scores, page authority and other metrics can be helpful only to a degree. They contribute good data to your cause but only one part of the modern dimension needed.

For instance, you could use all the above metrics to identify THE perfect keyword + strategy, but what if it turns out you’re actually not targeting the right intent? If all of the current listings in SERPs for your keyword are informational intent but you actually write content that’s transactional, you missed the point entirely.

Search engine intent needs to be a primary metric across all of your keywords, to ensure you’re optimizing your brand to compete on the correct playing field.

And that’s exactly what Google and other search engines get better at every day. With algorithm updates large and small made daily, a search engine can recognize the context of a page beyond just keyword matching and a URL. It understands intent and works to serve the correct intent to users with every query. To play Google’s game, intent matters.

Package together all of this keyword info not just for your SEO and inbound marketing teams but for your public relations, ecommerce, paid advertisement and social media teams as well.

After all, conducting business online means there are trillions of customer touchpoints across every channel. “Keywords” are really just the digital identifiers of those touchpoints: the who, what, where, when, how. 

As you dive into keyword research, take a step back and analyze SERPs through every lens possible because virtually every channel now lives on SERPs.

Google serves much, much more than 10 blue hyperlinks. It hosts a trove of prospect data and business intelligence vital to your brand visibility and aspirations.

A blueprint for every channel

Putting a SERP to work for you isn’t all that difficult if you know what to look for. 

Within each SERP you’ll see all types of links and content — not just organic results like company blogs or product landing pages. However, for the purposes of marketers, we bucket organic results in three predominant categories:

  1. Ecommerce
  2. Earned Media
  3. Brand-Owned


While ecommerce typically refers to any type of sale conducted electronically, that’s not a particularly useful definition if you’re a marketer wanting to assess the search landscape.

We segment ecommerce a little differently. Any platform that sells another brand’s products on its platform is ecommerce, like Amazon (but not the Amazon Choice products). eBay, Wayfair or Facebook Marketplace would be considered ecommerce.

These platforms represent huge — and growing — opportunities for your brand to appear in SERPs and across the web, making them a chief factor in keyword research and keyword strategy. That’s why Amazon SEO is now its own subgenre of SEO techniques.

As you can imagine, ecommerce intent is very commercial in nature, and users are looking to purchase products with just a few clicks.

Earned Media

Third-party publications, independent networks or other organizations that link back to or feature your content are considered to be “earned.” In other words, you didn’t pay for it, but you benefit from it nonetheless.

These editorials, reviews, features and guest spots add credibility to your brand, improve your reach across the web and accrue backlinks to your site. So while your company URL might not appear in SERPs in this case, it is still linked to and identified in the content of those that do rank in SERPs.

This collateral benefit brings high-intent traffic to your brand, and it’s often a blind spot for most SEOs. Comb through not just URLs in SERPs but the actual content within each of those links to find keyword matches and brand-relevant information you can use.


Company blogs, social media profiles and other brand-controlled media properties comprise, in many cases, the bulk of listings that appear on SERPs. Because keyword rankings are often correlated with longer-form content, writing in-depth guides, how-tos and product features is a great way to elevate your brand in SERPs and control every part of the process, instead of relying on third parties or fluctuating ad spend.

In the image below, you can see how Visably captures, dissects and visualizes SERPs by intent — overlaid with the above channels — so you can quickly glimpse what’s really on the table when doing keyword research and planning future campaigns.

Add all of this up and what do you have?

The ability to isolate channels within SERPs, provide actionable steps to your internal teams or vendors, define customer touchpoints and build campaigns around true search intent. Really, you make search intent measurable and functional.

Visably identities the core purpose of a site or webpage and buckets them by channel. This provides for easy list-building, more strategic review and a roadmap for your PR and Ecommerce teams.

How Visably Determines Search Engine Intent. 

As stated above, at Visably we think within three core types of search intent: 

  • Transactional intent / Click-to-Buy
  • Informational intent / Click-to-Learn
  • Navigational intent / Click-to-Go

We also said that Navigation intent isn’t of huge importance to strategy (just make sure Google can crawl your site and you’re good). 

Visably developed Channel Recognition Technology that uses AI to bucket websites based on the core function they serve.

> Is the website owned by a brand that only promotes / sells their own stuff? = Brand-Owned 

> Does the website create independent content, editorial analysis, or other unique content as its core purpose? = Earned Media

> Is the website a platform to resell other brands’ products or services? = Ecommerce

In additional to these, we identify 10 other website categories AND sub-categorize Brand-Owned content as either “transactional” or “informational” based on page content.

We then review each organic link in the SERP, categorize, and bucket accordingly. 

  • Earned Media = Informational
  • Government = Informational
  • Educational = Informational
  • Reference = Informational
  • Internet Tool = Informational
  • Forum = Informational
  • Social Media = Informational
  • Brand-Owned / Informational = Informational
  • Ecommerce = transactional
  • Affiliate = transactional
  • Brand-Owned / transactional = transactional
  • Brand-Owned = navigational
  • Political = navigational
  • Entertainment = navigational
  • Adult = n/a

We see search engine intent as a spectrum and developed a scale that demonstrates how the aggregate organic results lean:

Sometimes the intent is very clear, other times it’s muddled. But that’s search for you.

More data = more search intelligence

Search engine intent, measured in this way, renders more KPIs, ones that aren’t always present in traditional SEO tools and methods.

Don’t just examine links in SERPs. Dive into all of the content contained within all of those links. Most tools usually use cached systems that scrape information from Google every few days or weeks, meaning your search engine strategies could, by default, be a bit outdated. More modern tools use live data, which is as real-time as it gets.

With more data at your disposal you can uncover unique KPIs like:

  • Estimated content clicks: How many clicks you can reasonably expect to receive depending on the position in which you rank. This is more precise and practical than a generic “search volume” metric that doesn’t account for no-click searches or SERP distractions like ads, images, videos and featured snippets.
  • Equivalent ad value: How much you stand to gain monetarily from your keywords relative to what it would take to accomplish the same dollar amount in ad spend.
  • Brand footprint: How visible and present your brand is online, across all trackable media, including the channels discussed above.

This information adds new dimension and precision to your search marketing, allowing you to invest in keywords and channels that are most likely to reap rewards. Your boss will love to hear you’re efficiently spending every dime without letting anything go to waste.

Optimize EVERYTHING for comprehensive ROI

The final point here is that unlocking search engine intent empowers brands to go full throttle on all campaigns simultaneously. 

There’s less “wait and see” or “this channel over another.” Each component of your larger marketing and sales strategy gets the attention and investment it deserves, plus a measurable way to report ROI.

Too often companies drop pay-per-click (PPC) advertising to devote time to inbound marketing. Or they create only top-of-funnel content at the expense of bottom-of-funnel content. And worst of all, they target the wrong intent entirely. It doesn’t necessarily have to be this way, though.

When you can decipher search engine intent, properly analyze SERPs and track channel performance, you can optimize anything and everything. That means going after only the keywords that matter and only the leads that matter on all fronts: paid, earned, ecommerce and owned.

This allows you to connect every search strategy decision to ROI. 

And to think, it all started with a keyword.

About the Author:
Michael O’Neill is a writer, editor and SEO in Chicago. He’s a runner, reader and hiker too.